The AIP History Center's Emilio Segrè Visual Archive (ESVA) went online in early 1999a generation ago, as computer technology goes. Since then, our staff have made regular improvements in the interface while continually adding photographs. With more than 7000 images currently in its searchable database, the ESVA has become a powerful aid to anyone seeking visual materials on the history of physics, astronomy, geophysics and allied fields. We can now offer users the ability to download digital scans directly from the Web site, and process our service fees by credit card online. The improved efficiencies make savings that we can pass on to our customers: the ESVA, like all the Center's services, is essentially not-for-profit. In fact, it operates at a loss, with the difference made up by donations from the Friends of the Center for History of Physicsand the ESVA's Endowment Fund, established by Rosa Segrè in honor of her late husband, the noted physicist, historian of physics, and amateur photographer Emilio Segrè.
The initial ESVA Web site was designed so that researchers could look up photographs using name and/or keyword, and then submit an order for a reproduction by contacting the ESVA staff. An online form provided a quick way to send the staff an order by e-mail. The Web forms that the staff used to enter photo data and upload photos to the Web site were accessible only to AIP's information technology staff, so making changes was a lengthy process. The database for photo orders was separately maintained, generating an invoice which was then sent to the accounting department, who entered it into yet another system. Thus every photograph had to be cataloged twice, once in the online database viewed by customers and once in the photo-orders database. Orders were also entered twice, once in the photo-orders database and once in the accounting system. As usual with such patched-together systems, staff could not maintain complete consistency among all the data entries.
In 2001 the online catalog began to malfunction due to a server "upgrade." Meanwhile AIP decided to develop a broad e-commerce initiative for all its work, and chose an Oracle database system with an online "Store" interface. The ESVA was chosen as a pilot project, due to the complicated nature of the data and the variety of transactions involved. AIP's technical staff felt that if Oracle could handle the ESVA, it could easily handle AIP's other products.
Unfortunately, we eventually realized that the Oracle implementation could not handle the ESVA well (nor even some simpler tasks). The online store functioned, but it required frequent personal help for order problems and other troubleshooting. The online store ended up duplicating the same unwieldy system as before: we were still cataloging photos in two databases and entering orders in two different systems.
Toward the end of 2004, AIP realized that the Oracle online store system was not working and was too expensive to maintain. Management elected to try a new online e-commerce system employing open source software, called Merchantspace (now ElasticPath). Once again, the ESVA was chosen as the test case. This new store system, while unable to function as a database for the photo data, could interface easily with standard Microsoft SQL Server database software.
The Microsoft SQL Server database is basically a more robust version of MS Access software, which we were already using for our photo-order database, so we seized upon the chance to finally merge all of the photo data into one database.
After time-consuming detailed data cleanup we were able to complete the merger. As an added bonus, we can now directly access all the data ourselves, so we can update and change any aspect of it as needed. With complete integration, the orders go directly from the users to our accounting department, cutting out entry duplication.
Meanwhile, with extensive help from AIP's technical staff, we completely redesigned and streamlined the ESVA Web site's interface with users. Rather than describe it here, we urge you to take a look at http://photos.aip.org/. We would welcome your comments. We have found that for some users, the search facility is not intuitively easy, and we will continue to troubleshoot and upgrade the online interface as we receive feedback.